A choreographed approach to sustained critical inquiry among Indigenous learners
Garfield Gini-Newman and Jean-Paul Restoule
Models of learning based on compliance and the acquisition of a predetermined set of facts that virtually always constructed a narrative that at best ignored and marginalized Indigenous peoples and at worst perpetuated negative stereotypes have alienated generations of Indigenous youth. Changing the narrative to be more inclusive is a good first step, but on its own will be insufficient. Telling a different story in the same way may improve relevance but will do little to fundamentally reframe education in a way that honours Indigenous ways of learning and knowing. (Ladner, 2018; People for Education (2019).
Re-imagining education through a sustained critical inquiry approach can be a powerful step towards an effective education system for Indigenous youth particularly when approached with four interrelated Indigenous concepts that contribute to Indigenous ways of learning and knowing:
- Cultures of Belonging
- Ethical Relationality
- Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk)
- Sharing through Story
Cultures of belonging
The concept of ethical relationality developed by Cree scholar, Dwayne Donald, challenges us to engage children in thoughtful consideration of a variety of perspectives in an attempt to understand how the various histories and experiences have led to competing narratives and are essential in collaboratively moving forward in ways both productive and respectful.
At the heart of understanding ethical relationality is a realization that in a society where some enjoy greater status and wealth others must, as a consequence, be marginalized and impoverished to some degree. For students to grapple with this reality they must confront the implications of colonization and they must give consideration to how the fates and opportunities in life of one people are bound up with those others. This presents the students with the ethical challenge of attempting to imagine a future society in which fairness and equity is a shared experience for all within these relations. Citizenship, going forward, will require a reckoning with and deeper understanding of how Indigenous people relate to and tell stories about the lands we all share.
Operationalizing the concept of ethical relationality requires renovations to traditional western approaches to learning. While considering multiple perspectives is not new to many educators, understanding the potential for bias and seeing bias and impartial perspectives as a continuum rather than a binary relationship opens up the opportunity for thoughtful consideration of how perspectives have been arrived at and the degree of validity of competing perspectives.
Another significant renovation in approaches to teaching and learning necessary for ethical relationality is for learning to be holistic by design rather than a series of disconnected lessons.
Two-eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk)
Sharing through Story
For Indigenous cultures sharing through story has long been an important cultural practice (Archibald, 2008). The passing on of important knowledge, beliefs and traditions has taken many forms including oral storytelling, ceremony, drumming, pictographs, medicine wheels and dance. Few of these forms have been given substantial credence in western education as a measure of learning. Far too often assessments of learning in schools is an unpleasant exercise administered to students when the intended learning has ended. Most students see assessments as a stressful exercise where they are judged by teachers on their performance on tasks for which they often see little value. Embracing the concept of sharing through story requires not only a re-thinking of what constitutes legitimate evidence of learning, but also a re-thinking of the driving purpose for the product or performance (beyond grades) and who should be the intended audience (beyond teachers) so that assessments for students become a source of inspiration to learn.
Framing learning around powerful sustained critical inquiry
When considered as integrated and mutually reinforcing concepts, cultures of belonging, ethical relationality, two-eyed seeing and sharing through story put forward a vision of learning that is built upon students being active participants in constructing knowledge that is relevant to them, takes them deep into the learning through a reconciliation of various perspectives and encourages a sharing of their learning journey with authentic audiences through a variety of mediums. While this might seem like a tall order, it is achievable through a sustained critical inquiry approach.
Designing for Sustained Critical Inquiry
Consider the language typically used in describing the tasks students complete in school – summative assessments and culminating activities/task – both make the task a demonstration of learning that often occurs at the end of the learning to provide evidence of success at achieving the desired outcomes. What if we were to re-frame how we view and label the tasks so that they become the “driving tasks” that act as an invitation for students to learn? By making rich, meaningful tasks the drivers for learning we will better be able to create cultures of belonging and nurture ethical relationality through sustained critical inquiry.
Four Keys to powerful sustained critical inquiry
- Cultivate a culture of inquiry: Invert the conventional approach so that the invitation to solve a problem is the driver for the learning rather than the culmination for learning.
- Problematize everything: Make critical thinking a routine part of learning by developing daily lessons that explore manageable and focused critical challenges.
- Allow students to affirm, revise or extend their thinking through continual reflection: Encourage reflection and support failing forward (e.g., a Thoughtbook where students predict, speculate, hypothesize as they learn through observation, detecting and describing patterns, internalizing, witnessing and deconstructing. As their learning deepens students are encouraged to use their Thoughtbook to revise, edit, confirm and extend their beliefs and understandings.).
- Invite demonstrations of learning that are real: Design assessments tasks that connect with the world beyond the classroom in terms of authentic purpose and audience.
How can we promote sustained critical inquiry?
Creating opportunities for sustained critical inquiry begins with the framing of an over-arching inquiry question and an over-arching challenge that will focus the learning and provide a clear target for students. When care is taken to frame the over-arching question so as to invite a critically-thoughtful response it ensures students are engaged in what Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall described as Two-eyed seeing as they consider a variety of perspectives relating to the issue under consideration. With a rich, generative question driving the learning, students are able to imagine, test, revise and extend their thinking. This approach supports “incremental learning” as opposed to “entity learning” where the answers expected of students are both limited and fixed. Incremental learning helps to nurture cultures of belonging as students carefully consider evidence to arrive at a range of plausible answers rather than finding the one correct answer.
Creating the conditions for sustained critical inquiry involves two distinct types of inquiry. “Mucking about inquiry” refers to the phase of inquiry where we first invite students to offer an initial speculation, conjecture, prediction or in the case of creating to sketch a prototype. Teachers can encourage intellectual mucking about by beginning with a learning launch that invites a prediction, speculation, initial drafting of ideas, or imagining an ideal product or performance that would address the challenge with which they have been presented.
Drawing inspiration from the popular game Angry Birds, this phase can be seen as launching the birds during which teachers present an authentic and provocative challenge and invite students to record an initial response in their Thoughtbook. The use of a Thoughtbook in supporting student inquiry helps to promote ethical relationality as it invites students to offer an initial response and to revise their response as new perspectives and new information is examined. Shifting learning from seeking out correct answers to constructing reasonable responses encourages students to reconcile what might at first appear to be conflicting perspectives or to come to understand that views that differ are not necessarily right or wrong but rather may reflect alternative understandings or arise from a different system of knowledge. Thoughtbooks can also be used to encourage students to iteratively develop their response to a challenge. Used in this way, Thoughtbooks provide a concrete approach for students to develop their capacity to share their learning through stories that can take multiple forms from drama, drumming and dance to oral or written accounts. Cajete (1999), reflecting on how to begin thinking about scientific questions for Indigenous learners, proposed that artistic and aesthetic connections between knower and the phenomena to be inquired about could be the starting point. Sketching a tree can lead to inquiry about why the leaves are shaped the way they are or what is the connection between this tree and its neighbours. What other creatures depend on this tree to survive? What is the role of the tree in the larger ecosystem? Continually asking the discovery questions, originally rooted in an artistic or aesthetic connection, can be represented in a Thoughtbook that moves from sketch/connection to inquiry to seeking the answers.
As their learning deepens, students are invited to continually reflect on their response, extending, revising, or even re-starting if necessary. The meta-cognitive process supported by the use of a Thoughtbook allows for learning to be an iterative journey as students reflect on what is working or not working and seek new information and understandings allowing them to fail forward which contributes to building a culture of belonging.
In order for inquiry not to become a fruitless and frustrating exercise for students it is essential that student explorations are supplemented by “guided inquiry” during which teachers carefully choreograph the development of the intellectual tools students need to be able to deepen and extend their learning. One of the key intellectual tools required for students to construct critically-thoughtful responses to rich inquiries is sufficient background knowledge. Teachers can help to ensure that students have access to the requisite background to engage meaningfully with a challenge by identifying 2-4 lines of inquiry that will help students develop conceptual and procedural understandings necessary to successfully respond to the over-arching inquiry through careful consideration of relevant information and a variety of perspectives. Providing students with a learning map helps them to understand the relationships between the broad learning goals, the lines of inquiry and the daily lessons which ensures sustained inquiry over time leading to deep understanding of key concepts and the opportunity to nurture important competences.
In a sustained critical inquiry approach to curriculum design teachers scaffold learning by carefully planning a series of lines of Inquiry and by teaching the intellectual tools that will become the enablers allowing students to arrive at thoughtful and often innovative solutions to the challenge presented. This approach allows for setbacks or “failures” to be embraced as opportunities for learning rather than viewed as evidence of shortcomings which is important in creating cultures of belonging and developing ethical relationality.
Concluding thoughts on supporting Indigenous learners through sustained critical inquiry
Using a sustained critical inquiry approach helps to cultivate ethical relationality and two-eyed seeing by encouraging learners to carefully analyze and come to understand how the world can be viewed through different experiences and through different value systems. Shifting learning from the seeking of a set of predetermined correct answers to the construction of sound responses to questions and issues of relevance helps to ensure students are engaged in learning that is meaningful and transferable. Allowing students to iteratively develop their response to the provocations that launch the inquiry help students to develop both resilience and perseverance as they explore areas with a culture of belonging. And, by allowing students to share their learning through authentic products and/or performances with authentic audiences, students realize the power of story and of their voice in responding to challenges that are of relevance to their lives. Teaching and learning through a sustained critical inquiry approach unites many aspects of effective teaching in a manageable, coherent and transparent plan ensuring the understandings and competencies required by students are explicitly, effectively and diversely addressed to meet the needs of all students.
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